Amidst the recent announcements of Baltimore County Public Schools returning in a virtual format this fall, impacts on the emotional and social development of our children is a top concern for many. From parents navigating full-time work with kids at home, to parents that rely on outside social interaction to enrich their homeschooling experience, the question remains: how can we keep our families and communities safe and also meet our children's critical developmental needs for social and emotional learning?
We as parents have a significant opportunity for impact through our own behaviors. According to Social Learning Theory, people learn by watching others, and research over and over again shows us that this is resoundingly true for our children. Children absorb what we do, significantly more than what we say. How does this translate into our current COVID world?
How do we start our day? We can show our children that by taking an extra 5-10 minutes each morning to meditate, journal, start a gratitude practice, or some other short mindfulness activity, that they too can implement this intentionality when we have so little control in other areas of our lives. For young children, having them start the day with some fun breathing techniques (tissue breathing, bubble breathing, finger breathing) can really help them start the day with a sense of calm. For those who like movement, simple yoga poses for kids every morning before school can help them start the day relaxed and ready to focus.
If we take breaks throughout our day, even if for 2-3 minutes to reset our bodies and consequently our minds, we show our children that they too can utilize strategies to recharge as they engage in virtual learning. Activities that children can do during short breaks include playing with a pet, coloring, dance to their favorite song, or going outside for two minutes to smell a flower and breathe in some fresh air.
Many parents express concern about not being able to engage in the same enriching activities, such as visiting playgrounds and other community infrastructure allow for social distancing. Nature, however, provides great access at all times. Charlotte Mason, a famous education philosopher, famously said "Never be within doors when you can rightly be without." Organizing family hikes in the woods or a large park, followed by a picnic on the grass or bench can really help the family connect with nature, while at the same time, connecting with each other. Biking is another activity that is great for relaxation and allows you to enjoy the great outdoors while social distancing.
For families that have young children who struggle with anxiety, focus, and attention, it may be important to equip the child with some tools they can use to help them get through their online classes effectively. This includes giving them stress balls to squeeze while learning or giving them access to colored pencils or crayons to use while sitting in a long Zoom class. Giving them fidgets will also help keep their hands busy and help get their nervous energy out. Also, make sure they have enough snacks and water at their desk, so they don’t have to keep leaving class to search for it.
For families whose children are going back to school, it’s important to equip them with some relaxation strategies they can use when faced with anxiety in the classroom (deep breathing, positive self-talk, squeezing a stress ball). It’s also important for families to help (their) child practice wearing a mask for an extended period of time at home, so that they can slowly start getting used to it before they start a full day of school. Finally, it’s important for parents to educate their children on the importance of using safety precautions in schools like masks, hand washing, and social distancing so that they can push through the frustration that may come with having to do things differently at school this year. It’s advisable to pack hand sanitizer and an extra mask in your child’s bag as well.
With parents and children having to be online more during the Covid-19 quarantine, it’s important for families to remember to unplug every now and then to give their eyes and minds a technology break. Great ways to do this would be introducing a game night at home where the family plays a board game or other interactive game of their choice (e.g. charades, Jenga, etc.). Other fun activities include doing arts and crafts projects, scrapbooking, jewelry making, origami, etc. This gives the family time to enjoy each other’s company doing activities that they enjoy, which encourage engaging in quality time together.
It’s important for families to remember that we as humans need connection in order to thrive. For those working from home and doing online schooling, it’ll be essential to schedule dates with friends or relatives to keep those connections alive, and also give the family a break from being together indoors 24/7. This gives each person the opportunity to spend time with other people that bring them joy and fill their cup.
In addition, we want to remind parents that it’s okay to do things differently this year. You’re not held to the same expectations because you are going through a pandemic. This is out first pandemic and there’s no rule book on how to get through it. Remember that you are doing your best, and that it’s okay to have mixed emotions about it all. Try to normalize your children’s feelings as well. (Letting them know that they are having )a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Have talks with them regularly to check on their mental health and keep the dialogue open. (This will allow them the freedom)to share how they are feeling when things get hard for them. Support each other through it and if you need additional help, do not hesitate to contact a professional for the support!
About the authors
Nicole Fulton, LCPC, is a therapist at CMHC. She holds an M.S. degree from the Johns Hopkins University's Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. Nicole also has a B.S. degree in Finance from the University of Pittsburgh. Before changing careers, she was a Project Manager for a large software company. Nicole has experience working with adults, adolescents, and children, each with their own unique strengths and challenges.
Catherine Kioi, LGPC, is a therapist at CMHC. She received her Masters degree in Counseling Psychology from Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. She specializes in anxiety, depression, behavior modification, stress, relationship problems and parenting education. Cathy enjoys working with children, teens and young adults to help them navigate the stresses of life and help them achieve peace of mind.